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Previewing Roma’s Defense: Best & Worst Case Scenarios

It’s hard to talk about Roma’s backline without looking at star-man Roger Ibañez as a reference point for everything.

Football friendly match AS Roma - Debrecen Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

We opened up last year’s very same feature with a focus on expected goals against, and that’s where our attention is going back to this year. Remarkably, Roma’s defense (as far as not conceding danger let alone goals) got even worse in Paulo Fonseca’s second season with the club. Roma slid from holding the sixth-best xGA record in 2019/20 to the seventh-best defense in the league last season. However, you’ve got to bet that Mourinho was brought in to address one thing as a priority: Roma conceded 55 goals against 50 expected goals against.

In plain speak: As leaky as Roma’s defense was, they actually managed to conceded over the odds. And for that, you’d have to look at the mental fortitude of the team as a whole. Unless you believe the adage “you make your own luck” has no merit at all. But Roma’s aren't alone in this “unlucky” category: Atalanta and Lazio actually finished the season with an ever wider negative difference between their actual goals conceded and expected goals against.

AS Roma Training Session Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Atalanta paid for their bad luck with a third-place finish in the league (when they were in the title race at one point) and Lazio barely scraped sixth place. Roma wants to believe this team, kept intact, can control its own destiny and turn the luck around. That comes with a change of approach to the game and the way Roma acts in the non-possession phase. Because I have to say, from what we’ve seen in pre-season so far, the idea that Mourinho plays “defensive” football looks almost completely untrue.

Whenever Roma has had the ball under Mourinho so far, the team has committed a minimum of 5 players in the opponent’s half. In the friendly against Sevilla, with the La Liga side down to ten men in the second half, Roma threw as many as seven players forward. You don’t commit those kinds of risks if you’re a “defensive” team. But that’s when Roma are on the ball. When they’re not in possession, I think it’s more accurate to say Roma are switching from an aggressive style of defending (from the last two seasons) to a passive (or “patient” if you want to be diplomatic about it) approach.

I don’t like to watch it and it’s already even nearly put me to sleep twice this summer. Though if it were to happen in a high-stakes cup game with Roma defending a lead, I could definitely make it an acquired taste.

But the real question is: Can Ibañez and company do the same?

The Defense

AS Roma Training Session Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Depth Chart

Center-Backs: Roger Ibañez (starter), Gianluca Mancini (rotation), Chris Smalling (rotation), Marash Kumbulla (backup), Filippo Tripi (reserve).

Full-Backs: Rick Karsdorp (starter), Matías Viña (rotation), Riccardo Calafiori (rotation), Bryan Reynolds (backup), Leonardo Spinazzola (M.I.A.),

The Best Case Scenario

We’ve got ten players to talk about (and that’s assuming Federico Fazio and Davide Santon remain ostracized from the club) so we’ll talk about them individually:

  • Roger Ibañez: To my mind, Ibañez already is Roma’s best player besides Mkhitaryan and Pastore on their good days. He’s the only one in the squad who marries an insane work rate with top-class technical ability, as well as remaining free from major injury. And I’m not even particularly a big fan of Ibañez, but he’s that good that I have to respect him. The best case for Ibañez is to cut out the lapses in concentration. That’s literally the only thing stopping him from making it obvious as to why he’s the only player at the club with an 80 million euro release clause. Just keep the concentration levels high, stay free of injury and he’s good to go.
  • Gianluca Mancini: Contrary to the above, Mancini IS my personal favorite Roma player right now. But he’ll need to cut out his habit of trying to juggle 3-4 different tasks at once, at the cost of neglecting the most immediate job of defending the nearest player ahead of him. The best case is Mancini improves on defense, makes one of the starting slots unquestionably his own by the end of this season (if it isn’t the case already), and generally becomes a more positive guy in the sense of talking teammates through solutions—not just pointing out their mistakes (it still makes me laugh he gets a free pass for essentially the same “leadership” style as Edin Dzeko. But Dzeko bad, Mancini good? Not for me).
  • Chris Smalling: Stays injury-free, keeps Ibañez, Mancini, and Kumbulla honest, and makes the young guns reach new levels in their bid to keep up with Smalling locking down the starting role for another season.
AS Roma Training Session Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images
  • Marash Kumbulla: He has to improve to the point where he’s good enough to be considered a first-team regular by the end of this season; the amount of space Kumbulla takes up on Roma’s annual budget leaves the club with no other choice. It’s not Max’s fault that Roma made the choices they did, but this is where we are.
  • Filippo Tripi: He’s been a useful utility player at U-19 level but he’s never really shown specific qualities to his game. The best case for Tripi is the worst case for everyone else because the only way we’re talking about Tripi throughout this season is if a boatload of injuries or bad form plague the rest of the squad. It could be ideal for him to take a move elsewhere by the end of this month.
  • Rick Karsdorp: Rick’s challenge this season was already covered excellently by Steve’s piece last week. In an ideal world, Rick heeds Mourinho’s sideline commands to get forward more, and maybe Karsdorp even becomes more confident in driving the ball rather than relying on his passing.
  • Matías Viña: Having never seen the guy play, the most I can ask of Viña is to just hit the acclimatize well in Rome. Given the city’s climate is notoriously agreeable to South Americans, he came to the right place to do exactly that much.
  • Riccardo Calafiori: Just stay injury-free. Really. It’s not even worth talking about Calafiori until then. He deserves full respect for coming back from what should have been a career-ender years ago. But now it’s time to kick on.
  • Bryan Reynolds: Reynolds does a couple of things well in isolation, but the best thing he can do for himself is to hook it up into sequences, He can run like the wind, but use that to make yourself open to receive passes in dangerous areas. He actually has the courage to try penetrating, vertical passes à la Karsdorp, but make those passes connect with a teammate.
  • Leonardo Spinazzola: If you ask Leo, then the best case is he’s back in training by November. I feel a Wyclef Jean cover song coming on. That sounds very optimistic, but one of Spinazzola’s best weapons is his optimism.

The Worst-Case Scenario

AS Roma v FC Porto - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • Roger Ibañez: The worst is easy to predict here. If Mourinho really does plan on making the team sit back when they’re not in possession, that demands high concentration for the better part of the match. It could easily turn out that Ibañez isn’t suited to patient non-possession play; he strikes me as the kind of guy that needs to be involved all the time, needs to be rushing down a player. The concentration lapses and mistakes leading to goals could go in the wrong direction for the Brazilian defender this season.
  • Gianluca Mancini: The above applies to Mancini to some degree. Even though Mancini loves antagonism, that’s not a substitute for getting the job done in defense. If Mourinho tasks Mancini with man-marking in some of the biggest games, however, it’s a return to the familiar defending that made Mancini excel in his Atalanta days. So there’s probably less risk of Mancini failing than some of his teammates.
  • Chris Smalling: The worst is that Roma isn’t done breaking Chris Smalling, whose injury record was far better before he joined the Eternal City and their (now fired, for the second time in the last few years) medical team.
  • Marash Kumbulla: You could easily see Roma trying (and failing) to break even on Kumbulla next season, at which point they’re forced into sending Kumbulla onto a loan-with-option-to-buy deal.
  • Filippo Tripi: He has nothing to lose. The only thing that could go wrong is playing and directly costing a goal, or scoring an own goal. Short of that, anything else is up.
  • Rick Karsdorp: He stays within his comfort zone, refuses to carry the ball, and leaves the midfield shorthanded in numbers, which was often the case last season. At least more than we’d like to admit it was.
  • Matías Viña: ACL injury on his debut.
  • Riccardo Calafiori: Retires from football and goes into full-time fashion modeling.
  • Bryan Reynolds: The worst case is his teammates leave him to get isolated and targeted by opposing teams to run in behind him. It doesn’t matter how much potential you have; when you’re marked out as the weak link by opponents it can really do a number on your confidence unless you have teammates to watch your back.
  • Leonardo Spinazzola: Spinazzola has already lived through every single worst-case scenario in his career to date, so let’s just let him recover in peace.

Possible Break-Out Players

Sevilla FC v AS Roma - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

We could go with as many as five names this season, as players like Bryan Reynolds, Riccardo Calafiori, Max Kumbulla, and even new signing Viña all have good reasons for believing this could be their slingshot season. But my pick for breakout star was, is and perhaps always will be Ibañez.

I’ve read some comparisons about Ibañez and former Roma player Kostas Manolas, which is easy to understand as far as concentration/errors go. But beyond that, the two are very different players where Ibañez offers a hell of a lot more. Manolas was a great athlete that looked like he just happened to give it a go a football by chance, maybe because the 100m-sprint signups back in Greece were all taken one summer. Ibañez is an equally phenomenal athlete when it comes to work rate, but he offers a lot more as a footballer too.

Ibañez can run the ball, he can pass it over long and short distances and he’s a repertoire of different finishes in his locker when it comes to scoring a goal in the opponent’s box. The sky’s the limit for a player who’s still only 22-years-old (going on 23 at the end of this calendar year). I think it’s a more apt comparison to be talking about Ibañez’s impact at Roma along the lines of Mehdi Benatia’s lone season at the club.

Sevilla FC v AS Roma - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Meanwhile, there’s a potentially game-breaking player there in Bryan Reynolds on the right flank, and it’s not like a huge gamble was spent on trying to make that potential come good so Reynolds is one talent who can get on with his path in Rome free of pressure. Kumbulla has the opposite motivation: Either he comes good this season or it's curtains for him in Rome.

That could be as good a fuel as any, depending on the type of character Max holds. If the right-wing really is to be the main source of Roma’s wide attacks this coming season, then that plays into the hands of Calafiori to mark out a role for himself as a more balanced, zonal type of defender on the opposite flank. Meanwhile, Viña is the great unknown where anything is possible.